Friday, August 31, 2012

#BlogElul Day 13: Excuses and The Binding of Isaac

Shabbat Shalom friends. You'll find my sermon anticipating Rosh Hashanah, which deals with the Akedah and the stories we tell ourselves as we sacrifice our children. 

The father loves his son. He is the child of his old age, the one promised to him by the God he followed to a strange land, the one who gave his wife laughter, the one who will carry on the promise given by that God he cannot see but whose name he called out. The father loves his son, and now that same God who has promised that his progeny will be as the stars in the sky, commands him to do the unthinkable, to sacrifice his child in some distant land. There is no explanation, no qualification: only the commandment to kill his beloved, his precious one. The father loves his son, He is the child of his old age, the one promised him by his God; but still, he saddles up his donkey for the journey ahead. Every Rosh Hashanah we read a tale that is every parent’s nightmare: Abraham’s binding and near-sacrifice of Isaac. Some say it is a story of faith, a test of Abraham’s willingness to follow God’s commands and his ability to trust God’s intentions. And certainly this is how it has been taught. In Ma’asei Avraham Avinu, or “The Doings of Abraham our Father”, the rabbis explore the various midrashim surrounding the so-called 10 trials of Abraham, culminating with the Akedat Yitzchak, the binding of Isaac. Each one depicts a man committed to his belief regardless of the consequences, at times braving death and destruction but each time protected by God. Likewise, the midrash even presents Isaac as being a willing participant in the binding, committed to his faith as much as his father. As we might imagine, this story became a powerful metaphor for the massacres that took place throughout the middle ages, as Jewish communities throughout central Europe wrestled with whether they would have to face the same choices Abraham and Isaac faced. But we do not read the Akedat Yitzchak at Rosh Hashanah exclusively as a story of near-martyrdom. It is a story of redemption and remembrance. Our rabbis teach: When God stops Abraham’s hand and provides him a substitute in the form of a ram, Abraham elicits a promise of God: that every year, when the sound of the ram’s horn heard, the same ram caught in the thicket and sacrificed in place of his son, God will remember Abraham’s willingness to obey without question, will hear the prayers of Abraham’s children, our prayers, and redeem us. The shofar, and the story of its origin, proclaim: remember our ancestors, remember their zechut, their merit, and whatever our faults or failings, whatever our human frailties, preserve and forgive us for their sake. That is a comfort for us. And yet, and yet, this story is not one of comfort. Quite the opposite: the Akedah is a mirror, an unsettling reflection of our willingness to seek comfort—in religion, in easy rituals and easy answers, in superficial communication. How can we read this text without reflecting on how we sacrifice our own sons and daughters: sacrificed not to God but our expectations. Sacrificed not for holiness, but for competition, for prestige, for acclimation. Our children are offered up on foreign altars of ambition and we over over them, pressure cook them, that they may have the ‘right’ experiences, the ‘right’ backgrounds. To say nothing for the children who toil that we may have our coffee and chocolate and tea, the children working in horrific conditions the world over, the children whose parents are taken away from them that those parents may provide for our wants and needs. As Leonard Cohen sang: You who build these altars nowTo sacrifice these children,You must not do it anymore.A scheme is not a visionAnd you never have been temptedBy a demon or a god.You who stand above them now…You were not there before.When I lay upon a mountainAnd my father’s hand was tremblingWith the beauty of the word. So on top of all these meanings, the Akedah is about power. Our power over our children, and God’s power over us. It is a reminder that, despite our best efforts and all our energies, we are not in control over our own lives. The Akedah stands to remind us of our limits, re reassert that we are not God, merely caretakers of God’s gifts. And so, as we anticipate Yom HaZikaron, this day of remembrance, as we hear the Akedah, as we hear the sound of the shofar, we remember of our spiritual ancestors, and we pray for redemption: from our sins, from our failings, from our anxieties, from our reaches and overreaches for power. A redemption that comes not on our behalf, not on our merits, but the merits of our ancestors and our children. As it is written: O righteous one, do us this grace! You promised Abraham mercy for our fathers. Let then their merit stand as our witness…break the yoke and snap the bands of the…flock that yearns toward Thee.” Amen. 

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